Several studies have found learners can remember information in a narrative format better than bullet points (for example, Glonek & King, as cited in Kapp, 2014). One strategy for creating a narrative is delivering content with two narrators having a conversation rather than the traditional approach of a single narrator lecturing. Instead of one voice acting as an instructor, this approach lets learners listen in on two characters who are talking about it.
Less tiring to listen to: Let’s face it: Voice over, even good voice over, can be tiring to listen to for long periods of time. It’s more engaging to listen to the back and forth of two voices. Think about morning radio shows. Most shows have two or three people talking rather than one. If it is one person talking, they usually have interviews or guests to break up the monotony of a single voice.
Easier to write conversationally: You probably already know that a conversational tone is better for elearning. It can be challenging to write a single narrator delivering content in a conversational style though. On the other hand, if you write dialog, you’ll naturally stay away from bullet point lists.
Who are your characters?
One Mentor, One Learner
In a two-narrator course, one character is the mentor, and one is the learner. You need some difference in the knowledge and experience level between the characters in order to drive the conversation. You’re still doing some instruction, after all, just in a different format.
This strategy is used in television and film to deliver content. NCIS, for example, always has one character on the team who is new to the agency. That allows the script writers to deliver expository information in dialog between an experienced agent and a new one. The same approach is used when a more technical forensics expert or coroner explains something to a less technical agent. Watch any crime procedural and you’ll see this technique in use.
Reflect Typical Learners
The job or role of the learners should be similar to your learners. Who is your audience? What experience and background do they have? What are their concerns? What obstacles to they face? Who is a typical learner? Your less experienced character should reflect your typical learner. At the beginning of the course, your character lacks the same knowledge and skills as your audience. This helps learners identify with the character. During the course, your character follows a similar path as the one you want your audience to take. The learners are on a parallel path, shadowing your character as he or she learns.
Mentor as Manager or Leader
Who are the mentors for your audience? In their jobs, who do they learn from? Is it a manager or a more experienced person in the same role? Figure out who would explain this information if it happened as part of on-the-job training. That’s the role for your mentor character.
Gender and Diversity
Unless your audience is overwhelmingly male or female, generally one character should be male and one female. That makes it easier to distinguish the voices, plus it provides equal gender representation. If you create multiple courses or modules with this technique, aim for 50% of the modules showing a female mentor or manager.
Be aware of racial, ethnic, and other characteristics of diversity as well. Representing people of color in leadership roles can help challenge stereotypes.
If you’re looking for some reading to improve your skills or get started in the field of instructional design, check out these books.
General Instructional Design and E-Learning
Design For How People Learn (now in its second edition) by Julie Dirksen is one of my favorite books in the field. I’ve recommended it many times. It’s easy to read and understand. It makes research about learning accessible in ways you can apply immediately. The illustrations are charming and reinforce the concepts well. Read my review for more details.
The Accidental Instructional Designer by Cammy Bean is especially good for career changers and those who landed in instructional design from other fields. It provides a model for the range of skills that fall under the umbrella of “instructional design.” It includes practical tips on topics such as working with SMEs and avoiding “clicky clicky bling bling” or flashy interactivity and multimedia for the sake of being flashy. The design models in chapter 4 are probably familiar to many with experience in the field but very helpful to beginners who want to do more than just the same type of course and interaction for every situation.
Designing Successful e-Learning by Michael Allen tells you to “Forget What You Know About Instructional Design and Do Something Interesting.” All of Allen’s books are focused on helping people design e-learning that is interactive, engaging, and useful.
e-Learning and the Science of Instruction by Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer is one of the first books on e-learning I bought, and I still refer to it when I need evidence to justify decisions to clients. If you’ve ever wondered if formal or conversational style is better for learning (conversational) or if your on-screen text should replicate what’s on the screen (no, it shouldn’t), this book explains it with the research to back it up. It’s not perfect; the authors do sometimes disregard research that contradicts their own findings, and they sometimes make their principles seem more absolute than they probably are in real life. However, it’s still a solid reference.
The Gamification of Learning and Instruction by Karl Kapp explains how to do more with gamification than just badges and points. Karl summarizes research and game theory and explains how substantive elements of games like narrative can be used to improve learning design. I wrote more about this gamification research previously.
Scenario-based e-Learning by Ruth Clark is similar to eLearning and the Science of Instruction in that it summarizes research findings. This book is specifically focused on developing scenario-based e-learning, including everything from simple branching scenarios to complex simulations.
Building Online Learning Communities by Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt is aimed more at online instructors than instructional designers, but it’s a wonderful resource for IDs working in higher education or supporting online and blended learning communities.
Learning Everywhere by Chad Udell is a fantastic resource on mobile learning, providing everything from a big picture view of broad categories of mobile learning to specific technical considerations and pitfalls. You can read my review of the book for more details.
Show Your Work by Jane Bozarth is full of visuals and explains how to “show your work” by sharing what you’re doing and learning using social tools. The book explains the benefits of creating a culture where people share their processes and discoveries.
One technique for creating a more story-based course is using two characters who explain the content via a conversation. I usually use one character who acts as a coach and one character who is similar to the audience–same job role, same level of experience. In this example, the audience is new managers who don’t have much experience with coaching and mentoring. I wrote this course as part of Cine Learning Productions Custom Leadership Training (CLT) program.
I set up the story with a short video at the beginning of the course. This introduces the characters and shows the challenge the protagonist, new manager Michael, faces while coaching one of his employees. I wanted a scenario that showed a clear problem that could be solved through better coaching. If I create a good story at the beginning, I know I can “hook” the learners. I want them to think, “Oh! I’ve felt this same way. I’ve got the same problem as Michael.”
Michael is having one of those days. After finishing yet another coaching session with April, she still doesn’t grasp the basics of client relations. At his wits end, he goes to his manager, Pamela, who helps him discover a better way to coach through a session of their own.
After the introduction video, the rest of the course was built in Storyline with photos and voice over by the actors in the video. Learners listen in during Michael’s coaching session with Pamela.
A traditional e-learning course probably would have used a single narrator reading a bullet point list like this:
Here are the reasons coaching and mentoring are important in our organization:
Employees are more likely to stay if they are supported by managers.
Building employee skills lets us promote from within.
In this course, the same content is delivered in a conversational style, as if the two characters were having a coaching session. This does increase the overall word count, but I think it’s more engaging than reading a list. Even with a really good voice over person, it’s tiring to listen to the same voice for long stretches; this method breaks it up so you always alternate between the voices.
Pamela: Michael, as you know, our organization really values good coaching and mentoring. Why do you think we view it as so important?
Michael: Well, it probably helps keep people here in the organization. People are more likely to stay if they’re supported by their managers and developing new skills.
Pamela: You’re right. It also helps build our pool of talent. We want to promote from within, and that means we need to develop our people so they’re ready to move up.
Michael: Right. I wasn’t ready for a management position when I started here, but I’ve developed new skills since then. At least, I thought I had…
In the eLearning Guild’s research report Using Stories for Learning: Answers to Five Key Questions, Karl Kapp describes a study which found that people remembered more from a brochure when information was presented in a narrative format rather than a bullet point list. Using stories for learning helps us make sense of the content.
The activities in the course either ask learners to reflect on their personal skills or respond to scenarios. This activity provides a scenario and asks learners to follow guidelines for providing feedback.
In the final activity for the course, everything is tied back to the beginning. Learners create a plan for coaching April in the scenario from the introductory video; they create a solution for the problem at the beginning of the course.
The customer response to this course has been positive. Len Carter, V.P. of H.R. for FHN said, “Truly, these were the best online products for leadership development we’ve ever purchased. We’ll be purchasing more in 2014!”
Have you created this style of story-based course? Do you see opportunities where you could use it in the future?
The meta-analysis section has a useful table providing a quick summary of the major findings of each meta-analysis reviewed. Here’s a few points from that research:
“Game-based approach produced significant knowledge-level increases over the conventional case-based teaching methods.” (Wolfe, 1997)
“An instructional game will only be effective if it is designed to meet specific instructional objectives and used as it was intended.” (Hays, 2005)
In the elements of games section, Karl summarizes several individual studies and their findings in the following areas:
Player motivation (both intrinsic and extrinsic)
Gamification in learning is often viewed very superficially as just adding extrinsic motivators like badges and leaderboards. In this book, Karl recommends going beyond that shallow understanding to look at the ways that games can be effective and to use those elements to enhance learning.
If you’re interested in more information about the book, check out the other posts in the blog book tour.
References (as cited in The Gamification of Learning and Instruction):
Hays, R.T. (2005). The effectiveness of instructional games: A literature review and discussion. Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division (No 2005–004).
Wolfe, J. (1997) The effectiveness of business games in strategic management
course work. Simulation & Gaming, 28(4), 360–376.
Ruth Clark posted at ASTD an article titled “Why Games Don’t Teach.” It’s a deliberately provocative title, meant to draw attention and cause controversy. A more accurate title would be “Some Games Aren’t Effective at Making People Remember Content,” but that’s a lot less likely to grab attention.
Before I continue, I want to say that I enjoyed her book, eLearning and the Science of Instruction, and I have found some of the research there valuable. I respect her past contributions to the field.
However, I think Clark didn’t do a very careful review of the literature before writing her post, and I don’t think that one study is enough for her to make such a broad claim dismissing games for learning.
Let’s look at her summary of the research:
The goal of the research was to compare learning efficiency and effectiveness from a narrative game to a slide presentation of the content. Students who played the Crystal Island game learned less and rated the lesson more difficult than students who viewed a slide presentation without any game narrative or hands on activities. Results were similar with the Cache 17 game. The authors conclude that their findings “show that the two well-designed narrative discovery games…were less effective than corresponding slideshows in promoting learning outcomes based on transfer and retention of the games’ academic content” (p. 246).
Adams, D.M., Mayer, R.E., MacNamara, A., Koenig, A., and Wainess, R. (2012). Narrative games for learning: Testing the discovery and narrative hypotheses. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104, 235-249.
Next, let’s look at how the authors summarize their own work and see how it compares to Clark’s summary (emphasis mine).
Overall, these results provide no evidence that computer-based narrative games offer a superior venue for academic learning under short time spans of under 2 hr. Findings contradict the discovery hypothesis that students learn better when they do hands-on activities in engaging scenarios during learning and the narrative hypothesis that students learn better when games have a strong narrative theme, although there is no evidence concerning longer periods of game play.
Gee, that “under two hours” point seems like an important limitation of the research, maybe one that should have been mentioned by Clark when claiming that games have no value and “don’t teach.”
It’s also possible that there are flaws in the research.
The research says that the games were “well designed,” but maybe they actually weren’t. Maybe they were “well designed” by the standards of traditional courses, but not by the standards of games. Without seeing the full article, I can’t tell.
The learners did worse at “retention,” but honestly, I wouldn’t expect a narrative game to be all that effective at helping people memorize content. If retention was the goal, a narrative discovery style game probably was the wrong approach, which brings us back to the previous point about whether the course was well designed for the goals.
One of the benefits of games for learning is application and behavior change, something this research didn’t measure. I’m not terribly surprised that a game with hands-on practice didn’t help people simply recall information that well. I would have liked to see some measure of how well the learners could apply the concepts. But, as is also typical of Clark’s work, the focus is on whether people recall content, not whether they can apply it. This, strictly speaking, is a limitation of the research and not a flaw, but it is something we should consider when looking at how we apply this research to our work.
I think there’s a case to be made that the games themselves weren’t actually “well designed” as claimed. They didn’t allow for real practice, just a different format for receiving content. In the discussion on this post in the eLearning Guild’s LinkedIn group, Cathy Moore made this observation:
I don’t have access to the full study cited in Ruth’s article, but based on the description of the games in the abstract, (1) they don’t simulate a realistic situation that’s relevant to the learners and (2) they teach academic info that learners aren’t expected to apply in real life. The material was tested on college students in an academic setting, not adults on the job.
By requiring learners to explore (or slog though, in my opinion!) an irrelevant treasure hunt, you’re adding cognitive load or at the least distracting the brain from the content. It seems likely to me that putting the material in a more relevant context, such as using your knowledge of pathogens to protect patients in a hospital, would have changed the results of the study.
As Ruth herself says in the comments to the article, “I think it’s about designing a simulation (which I don’t equate directly to games) in a manner that allows learners to practice job-relevant skills.” Neither of those games let students practice job- or life-relevant skills. They were entertaining and distracting ways of presenting information for a test.
Another limitation is that this research can’t address the question of engagement and completion rates. In the real world, getting people to complete online learning is often a challenge. If your traditional text-based click next slide presentation course has a less than 20% completion rate, then a game that is engaging enough to make people want to finish and gets completion rates above 90% is a big improvement—even if that game technically produced lower retention rates in a controlled lab environment. Learning doesn’t always have to be drudgery, although sometimes we equate “worthwhile” with “unpleasant.” There is value in making it interesting enough to keep people’s attention, and maybe even an enjoyable experience.
In the previously mentioned discussion, Tahiya Marome made this point:
For the brain, play is learning and learning is play. That traditional educational structures have sucked that dry and replaced it with a grim Puritanical work is learning and learning is work structure doesn’t mean we have to leave it that way. It may take us a while to figure out exactly how, but we can make educating oneself playful and a great, life long game again. We can. Our brains are wired for it.
Clark has some legitimate points about the definition of games being fuzzy and that the design of the game should match the learning outcomes. For example, I agree with her that adding a timer to critical thinking tasks can be counterproductive. Adding a timer to skill practice for skills that really do need to be timed is good practice though. Think of help desk agents who are evaluated both on the quality of their service and how quickly they can solve problems; timed practice matches the learning outcomes.
If Clark is going to make the claim that “games don’t teach,” she needs to address all the research that contradicts her point. She makes this claim without even mentioning any of the other research.; she just pretends nothing else exists beyond the one study cited. That is, frankly, an extraordinary claim, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. One study doesn’t discount the dozens of successful examples out there. It’s bad use of research to treat any individual study as applying in all situations, regardless of the limitations of the study. What we need to look at is the trends across the bulk of research, not a single data point. There are definitely bad games out there, and games aren’t the solution in every situation, but that doesn’t mean games shouldn’t be one tool in our toolbox like Clark claims.
Here’s a cursory review of a few examples of successful games for learning. This is by no means a comprehensive review, but this would be a good place for Clark to start refuting evidence if she wants to dissuade people from using games. Again, the point is not to look at any single study as being the end of the discussion, but to look at the overall findings and the types of strategies that have repeatedly been shown to work.
“Trainees learn more from simulations games that actively engage trainees in learning rather than passively conveying the instructional material.”
“Trainees participating in simulation game learning experiences have higher declarative knowledge, procedural knowledge and retention of training material than those trainees participating in more traditional learning experiences.”
Eduweb has a collection of research related to games for learning. Here’s a highlight from the findings of one paper: “Summative evaluation of our WolfQuest wildlife simulation game finds that players report knowledge gain, stronger emotional attachment to wolves, and significant behavioral outcomes, with large percentages of players following their game sessions with other wolf-related activities, including such further explorations of wolves on the internet, in books and on television.”
Clark Aldrich has created a number of successful games and simulations, such as Virtual Leader. “Using practiceware significantly increased retention and application, not just awareness of learned content.”
James Paul Gee has published a number of articles on games and learning.
Mark Wagner’s dissertation on MMORPGs in education found that “MMORPGs may help students develop difficult to teach 21st Century skills and may be used to support student reflection.”
Thanks to Cathy and Tahiya for giving me permission to quote them here!
I’d love to hear if any of you out there have designed games for learning and found them to be effective or not. I’ll have more to say about this topic next week in my post for the blog book tour for the Gamification of Learning and Instruction.